Some of my formative childhood memories have been spent watching films like Hook (1991), Jumanji (1995) and Flubber (1997). It was back then that my mind associated Williams with that funny, loving, child-like character who stood out from anyone else I had seen on screen. For some reason, I would see him as one of my own, not an ‘adult’ by any definition of the word but someone you would want to be friends with. Once you had watched a performance, any performance of his, you wanted to watch more. You wanted to know him better. As I grew up, I watched ‘my friend’ in films that were more nuanced. In films like Bicentennial Man (1999), I saw him in a different act for the first time. The funny-man had suddenly become an actor who was breaking my earlier association and creating a new one, of that of an individual who had a full-range of emotions hidden inside his persona. As I discovered this other side of him, I started to find some of his older films that they didn’t show on TV for some reason. Dead Poets Society (1989) and Good Will Hunting (1997) made him the rebellious one who unraveled the social nonsense that we had taken for granted. Through Insomnia (2002), One Hour Photo (2002) and World’s Greatest Dad (2007), I discovered yet another facet of a flawed individual who also had insecurities and regrets, and most of all, a sadness in his eyes. Knowing Robin Williams had been a cycle of discovery where he could endlessly pull out new tricks from his magician’s hat and still surprise you. His sudden demise on 11th Aug, 2014 was a final f*ck you as if he were smiling his good-natured smile, teasing – “You thought you knew me ?”
Marina Zenovich’s HBO documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is an attempt at peeking behind the manic, spontaneous brain of a man who captivated audiences from the very moment he stepped foot on stage. The narrative is largely driven by Williams’ own voice which consists of splices of his recordings from various occasions where he talks about his family, his work and, rarely, about himself. There is a surprisingly large number of photographs of his early years which showcase a bright young man who has doting parents. Due to the nature of his father’s business, the family had to move a lot. That and he being an only child, Robin did not have a lot of friends growing up. He would spend a lot of time alone which may have shaped his brand of observational and caricaturish humor during his stand-up improv days. A part of his comedic nature also came from his mother Laurie who loved cracking jokes with the people around her. In a particularly happy clip, Robin is talking to the press with his mother who by that time must be in her 70s, and yet she cracks a joke from time to time eliciting a boisterous laugh from her son which is returned in kind, making her laugh like a child.
Marina Zenovich’s HBO documentary Robin Williams : Come Inside My Mind is an attempt at peeking behind the manic, spontaneous brain of a man who captivated audiences from the very moment he stepped foot on stage. The narrative is largely driven by Williams’ own voice which consists of splices of his recordings from various occasions where he talks about his family, his work and, rarely, about himself.
It was evident from his days at The Juilliard School that he was not a conventional artist. There was a restless energy to his performances as if he ran on thousands of volts of undampened electricity. He had honed his antics to such perfection that he switched personalities and voices at the drop of a hat, and would mix it all up again before that hat hit the ground. David Letterman, who was also starting out his career as a stand-up comic at about the same time as Williams says that watching him on stage with that energy was terrifying to them as they knew that they could not match that. All they had was their jokes. During his comedy circuits at the fabled Comedy Store and other Improv scenes, Williams became good friends with Billy Crystal, a fellow comic who had also built a fan-following around him. Crystal was, perhaps, Williams’ first actual friend in the truest sense of the word and this relationship remained strong till his last days. In one of the narratives by Crystal, you see that despite his age, you could always expect Williams to do the unexpected. Every time Crystal got a call from him, he would hear a different character from the other side of the line. Those recordings over the years have been put together by Zenovich in the film and provide a glaring insight into how he was outside the camera.
David Letterman, who was also starting out his career as a stand-up comic at about the same time as Williams says that watching him on stage with that energy was terrifying to them as they knew that they could not match that. All they had was their jokes.
Even though he was one of the most loved actors in the industry, very few of his closed ones knew how he truly felt about himself. In one of the interviews, his son Zak talks about how Williams had this urge that he had to be entertaining and perform and make people laugh. When he couldn’t do that, he felt defeated. The acts that we have enjoyed so much, had turned into an addiction for him. Comedy was not just a way to tell jokes. For him, it was essential communication which he used to breathe out. Not making people laugh was like holding his breath. It would have been suffocating. In a recording of the 2002 San Diego Critics Choice Awards, Day-Lewis, Nicholson, and Williams are the Best Actor nominees. There is a tie and everyone but Williams wins the award. Any other actor in that situation would feel humiliated and angry but Robin being Robin gives one of the funniest non-acceptance speeches turning the audience into a bunch of laughing wretches. Even the usually composed Day-Lewis is seen cracking up in the background.
Zenovich weaves together a poignant, beautiful story of a man who was loved by generations both young and old. Through the stories and anecdotes that are shared, you get to see the man as you had known him all along. The film also takes you into his darker days when he had a brief struggle with alcoholism. He would joke about his condition even in his later stand-ups but it was evident that he was not in good shape. After a heart surgery in 2009, as Crystal says – “He had suddenly become mortal. Suddenly, life was different. Suddenly, things got more precious.” Age had finally caught up with the man and, maybe, his loneliness had too. Even so, his life had been a testament to the happiness that he strived to spread. Nothing had changed that. He had embodied carpe diem till his very last. And that’s how we will remember him.